The Transfer Test: It’s time for an education rethink

On the 25th January my Twitter and Facebook timeline was full of worried, stressed parents. All of them were anxiously waiting for AQE/PPTC results, due on the 26th. The emotions on display ranged from hope to dread.

I sat the 11+ when I was in school. P.7s these days have to sit three, sometimes four, one-hour exams over the course of multiple weekends if they want to get into a grammar school.  Thankfully there are plans for pupils to sit one common exam in future. 

Transfer test results day always brings back memories.  I went to prep school. I had ‘indoor shoes’ and ‘outdoor shoes’ on my uniform list. On my first day of P.1 I wore a beret, a blazer and a brown satchel.  When I sat the transfer test, the majority of my year got an ‘A’. Two people got a ‘D’: me and my best friend.

I wasn’t bothered about my low grade. I hated my primary school. All l I cared about was leaving and going elsewhere. My teachers and peers saw it differently. Getting a ‘D’ in your 11+ when you attend a prep school is like announcing that you’ve been diagnosed with a terrible illness. Teachers approached me in the corridors to tell me they were “so sorry” to hear about my low grade, talking to me in low, hushed tones you’d find a funeral. My classmates told me that I was destined for the local high school where I’d be bullied by “bad kids” from a council estate who would shove my head down a toilet.

At my school, parents paid for their child to board rather than send them to a secondary. I heard a horror story about one girl being made to resit the 11+ again just so she could get into a grammar.

Thankfully, my mother was sensible. I went to a high school and had a blast. I went to a grammar to do my A Levels because my school only offered sixth formers ‘AVCEs’ in two subjects.

Because of my experience, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the transfer test. My secondary school was excellent, and it gave me the chance to grow academically. I wouldn’t have thrived in a rigid grammar  at age 11.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that academic selection is a preservation exercise for middle classes. I saw this in the sneering attitude of my peers, the derogatory, classist language they used to describe kids that attended the local high school. I’ve heard family friends openly say that they don’t want their children going to school with kids from a so called “rough” area of Belfast. There is a perception that high schools are for the unintelligent, the lazy and the disruptive.

We rarely talk about the unspoken benefit of Northern Ireland’s prep and grammar schools: social capital and connections. A lot of people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Northern Ireland’s fantastic academic results are always in the news. We never linger on the fact that when we do badly, we do terribly. Under achievement in working class protestant boys has been well documented, particularly in a 2011 report named ‘A Call to Action.’  The Children’s Commissioner said in 2018 that our education system would have folded if it was a business. She said:

“Our children cannot continue in a system where how well you do in education relies on your gender, religion, race, sexuality, or whether you are rich or poor. Statistics are telling us that all of these things impact children’s ability to achieve academically”

Education outcomes for children who attend grammar schools versus those that don’t is stark. Things need to change.

What bothers me about the education debate in Northern Ireland is how stale and cyclical it is. The debate is often dominated by the voices of people who went to grammar school. Our brilliant GCSE and A  Level results are often used to shut down dissenting voices.  The choices presented to us are academic selection and…what, exactly?

Every results day, local MLAs and journalists will flock to their nearest grammar to hail our system as a success. Very few go to local colleges to congratulate teenagers doing NVQs, HNDs or BTECs. Our system seems to be focused on driving children towards university, anything else is seen as second best.

I see few politicians pushing bold, new ideas about education in Northern Ireland. It isn’t enough, in my opinion, to just end academic selection. Other countries have taken unique and innovative approaches to education and get better outcomes.

Abolishing the 11+ and doing nothing isn’t an achievement. If we want to create a better, fairer education system, we need to think outside the boxes we were placed in as children.